I wish I could write this way—with an effortless lucidity and simplicity that reaches the heart. Elizabeth Strout’s title, My Name is Lucy Barton, expresses the simplicity of her prose, though the power and full meaning of the phrase only come with the reading.
The plot is equally simply. While in the hospital in Manhattan, Lucy Barton’s mother, who she hasn’t seen since childhood, comes to visit. With her presence, unexpected and unexplained, come scenes from her early life and relationships long buried in the shame, pain, and isolation of the family’s extreme poverty. Lucy Barton discovers, scene by scene, who she is.
Those scenes are related with such unvarnished matter-of-fact prose that they ring with truth and absorb out attention fully. I found myself relating deeply with Lucy, though my background bears no resemblance to hers, except that in writing the scenes she discovers the emotions that have shaped her life. In the Midwestern Puritanical culture we both grew up in, emotions were never to be discussed or named and to do so was to embarrass yourself. The process through which Lucy learns to name and consider the emotions evoked by the scenes brought home that unveiling process that made me—and her—become writers. One scene in particular brings this culture home:
I said suddenly, as the lights started to come on throughout the city, “Mommy, do you love me?”
My mother shook her head, looked out at the lights. “Wizzie, stop.”
“Come on, Mom, tell me.” I began to laugh and she began to laugh too.
“Wizzie, for heaven’t sake.”
In another, a character recognizes, as she did not, her loneliness.
Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.
In still another, while in class with author Sarah Payne, she first discovers identification with another soul. In this scene, a large cat jumps through the classroom window and both Sarah and Lucy jump—terrified.
The psychoanalyst woman from California, who usually said very little, said that day to Sarah Payne, in a voice that was—to my ears—almost snide, “How long have you suffered from post-traumatic stress?” And what I remember is the look on Sarah’s face. She hated this woman for saying that. She hated her. There was a silence long enough that people saw this on Sarah’s face ..Then the man who had lost his wife said, “Well, hey, that was a really big cat.”
The above quote illustrates the way Strout captures the subtleties of such moments. In it she also recognizes the difference between empathy and judgment, a lesson that had a profound effect on me as I tried to become a writer.
Overall, this is a story of redemption, resolution, and forgiveness and makes a wholly satisfying read.
I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenanciously around one another’s heart.
This is a story to love and reread. One you shouldn’t miss.